The Ethics Of… Ignoring the Homeless

Homelessness sucks. Let’s get that out of the way right up front.

It sucks for the businesses who have people sleeping and stacking filthy gear up against their frontages. It sucks for pedestrians who have to navigate around shanties and people legs on their way to and from work. It sucks for tourists and anyone out for a good time, since filthy shouty people tend to bring the mood down a tad. It sucks for governments who are stuck with the public being angry with them if they ignore it, or throwing a bunch of money around to fix it, in which case the public gets angry anyway. And lest we forget it sucks for the homeless too – contrary to what certain newspapers would have you think, no one wants to live in those conditions.

Image result for homeless melbourne

Not pictured: Alternatives.

The question of what should be done with the homeless is only becoming more relevant as Melbourne come to grip with a sudden upsurge in homeless numbers, and all the aforementioned groups start cracking the shits at each other. But such questions are really matters for the government to deal with and well outside the scope of your average person trying to navigate their daily life. And since it turns out the solution to the homelessness problem is actually pretty straight-forward I’m just going to link to it here and get on with a more practical question:

Is it ok to ignore the homeless?

Funny question really, isn’t it? For the vast majority the answer is almost immediately “No!”, but then again for the vast majority of people that’s exact what we do when we encounter them – avert eyes, skirt their little sphere of influence and mumble “Sorry” if they happen to catch your eye. So clearly there’s a bit of a disconnect going on here between how we think homeless people should be treated and how we actually go about things.

On the one hand these people are obviously in bad circumstances and it would be best for everyone if they weren’t – this demands that we do something to help. And on the other hand you have that awful awareness that anything you do to help likely won’t help that much, since $2 isn’t exactly going to help them pull together a solid rental application let alone address the reasons they’re on the street in the first place. And this is compounded by that nasty cynical part of us all that wonders whether trying to help might actually make things worse. After all, two of the major contributing factors in homelessness in Australia are mental illness and drug addiction (which, again contrary to what certain papers would suggest, has long ceased to be a choice by this point). Sling a drug addict or alcoholic $5 and not only is it not going to help their situation, it’s likely going to contribute to the problem.


Mental health is obviously a far more diverse and complicated state of affairs, but that in itself is the problem: you have no idea what that cash will be used for and absolutely no guarantee is will benefit the person or just make things worse.

But even remove these factors and the problem persists: these are strangers we’re talking about here and there is no guarantee how they will react to anything you do. Sure I can throw them some cash and they’ll probably just say thanks, but as we’ve discussed, that might just make things worse. Better to talk to them, right? Find out their circumstances, how they ended up in this situation and how best you can help them out of it. Y’know, the sort of basic research any significant decision should involve. But I dunno about you, but I occasionally get anxious talking to restaurant staff and they are literally paid to be nice to me – so the idea of willingly engaging with a person who’s in desperate circumstances and likely not the pinnacle of mental health really does not appeal. What if they see your interaction as a chance to beg for as much cash as they can get from you? What if they react to your interest with hostility, abuse or fear? What if they just outright attack you? Sure these are all unlikely outcomes, but again these are people in desperate circumstances – the risk is most definitely there.

And so we avert out eyes, skirt around them and mumble “Sorry” if they catch our eye.

And now on top of being in desperate circumstances, the homeless find themselves being literally shunned by the rest of society. How long do you reckon you could go with people constantly avoiding eye contact with you before you became incredibly depressed and/or resentful? I’d barely make it one day.

From an ethical point of view there are two things at play here:

The first is the distinction between the practical and the principle of the matter: in principle, no we should not ignore the homeless and should work as a community to include and assist them. But in practice things are a hell of a lot harder, more complicated and flat out scarier than that. And as I’ve discussed before, ignoring one factor in preference to the other is a recipe for messy failure. Instead we need to find a way to achieve the principle that accounts for and manages the practical limitations we face.

And speaking of practical limitations, our second ethical conundrum here is good ol’ paralysis of uncertainty – specifically that you’re trying to solve a problem that you know bugger all about and which isn’t in your control in the first place. Without this crucial context anything you do to help might be positive, but could easily be a waste of your time and energy, or could even make things considerably worse. The usual solution to such paralysis is to use the best information available, but this problem doesn’t belong to you and every homeless person’s situation is going to be radically different, so even basic information is near impossible to get and it reliability will always be up for grabs.

So what the hell do we do? The same thing we do whenever we run into a highly complex problem we don’t understand well: we outsource it.

It might sound obvious to say that there is an entire industry set up to help manage homelessness and its causes, but for many we imagine this as a loose network of charities desperately trying to provide food and beds without any real plan to solve the problem. In reality these services are run by qualified professionals who do understand both the nature and cause of the problem and do their best to solve the issue of homelessness at its source. So why does homelessness still exist in the face of such professionalism? Two reasons; the government ignores them and there is never enough funding – helping the homeless isn’t profitable after all, so it’s usually seen as a loss of resources rather than the cost-saving exercise it actually is.

For the likes of you and me, these professional services offer a solution to both the paralysis of uncertainty since they definitely know what they are doing and can demonstrate that their efforts will help, and in building that bridge between the practical realities and the principles we strive for, effectively by doing it for us.

But they cannot do it alone. Without sufficient government attention and financial support these groups have very little capacity to actually do the work they know needs doing, and thus it fall to us to provide that financial support and also to kick the government’s arse until they start taking issues like housing affordability, lack of emergency housing, access to mental health care, and drug rehabilitation programs seriously, seeing them as investments into the improvement of our community rather than problems that drain their treasuries. Politicians may be self-serving cynical bastards but therein lies our power over them; if you make doing the right thing a vote-winner then they will do the right thing, purely out of self-interest.

So next time you guiltily go to step around a homeless person, eyes averted and mumbling “sorry”, I’ve got a little mantra for you:

  1. Don’t feel guilty about it: you did not cause this problem and throwing money at it will likely make things worse.
  2. Accept you can help effectively: you are not responsible for the problem occurring, but you do have the capacity to assist, and thus you should.
  3. Factor helping into your decision: If you want to help them support the professionals directly. Do some basic research, find a group with a proven and research-supported approach and kick them a few bucks when you can. When an election rolls around, watch out for the parties that treat homelessness like a complex problem that needs a solution, rather than a social blight that can be fixed with a good kicking.

And next time someone mentions homelessness in the same breath as ‘laziness’ or ‘disgusting’ or ‘something should be done with them’, feel free to introduce them to the various causes of homelessness and ask what they would do when their options ran out.


2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Ignoring the Homeless

  1. Pingback: The Man - CREActivity

  2. Pingback: A Window on Poverty | E110 Fall 2017

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